Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Age Of Forgetting

Today is Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the First World War. Here in Britain we wear poppies as a sign of respect (and as a way of helping out veterans and their dependants through the Royal British Legion and the Earl Haig Fund Scotland). Well that was the idea.

Sadly today I looked around and found I was the only person in a rather busy carriage of a westbound District Line train to be wearing one. Even on the way to work, discounting the rather glorious sight of pretty much every girl from a local school wearing one, I was taken aback at the sheer lack of poppies.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a poppy Nazi. I don't expect people to wear poppies by coercion. I was just shocked that so few had chosen of their own free will to wear one.

Then at work the subject was brought up by my only other poppy wearing colleague. We hoped the company would observe the 2 minute silence at 11a.m. We were pleased to hear that the silence would be started and finished by the sounding of fire alarm, but confused when we were told "If people don't feel comfortable with observing the silence they don't have to". Confused I wondered who might not feel comfortable with it, to find several people wouldn't but they didn't offer an explanation (and I didn't pry, again I'm not the Remembrance police).

When the time came just three of us in an office of 30 observed the two minutes silence as all around us others chatted, dealt with tenants and phoned colleagues in other departments.

I don't really know what to make of it. You can't force people to do things they don't want to do. But... but part of me feels sickened by the total lack of respect for those who lost their lives in the war (and all the rest of the wars too). I can't help it. It feels wrong to feel so strongly on something like this, as I do tend to dislike overt patriotism and strongly held beliefs in general but there's something inside me that recoils at this insult to the memory of our ancestors.

However, part of me knows the reason isn't disrespect. It's ignorance. Most of the people I work with, perhaps most of the people in this country, couldn't tell you much about the First World War except perhaps it involved the British and the Germans and trenches. It's as foreign to them as is the War of the Pacific or the Anglo-Afghan Wars.

Which scares me somewhat given that the First World War was caused mainly by a general ignorance of what it would involve. That ignorance infected every echelon of society and lead to deaths of millions. Let's hope we don't forget our past totally and blunder into yet another bloodbath.

This blogger works for nothing but the joy of writing but always appreciates things bought from his wishlist


efan78 said...

I can see exactly where you're coming from Jae, I must admit I didn't get a poppy this year, but that was because I couldn't find any!

Where I used to work, even though it was a call centre we were always given permission a few minutes before 11am to advise customers that we were going to observe the 2 minute silence and then we gave them the option to either go on hold or we'd call them back.

I only ever once had a customer that wasn't happy with this but I told him that I was very much behind it and, whether he liked it or not, I would remember. When I called him back he apologised.

I think that it's something that people just don't think about unless they're challenged.

Plum said...

As you know, I've mentioned this and related issues a few times on Twitter over the last few days.

I was home alone at 11am so I don't know what was going on outside, but I did notice later walking through the streets of Birmingham a lot of sellers but nobody buying. Like you, I think there's not a lot of point in making it compulsory, but at least that might have more people wondering whey we do it!

I remember when one of the Harry Potter films had its big premiere in Armistice week and all the stars turned up wearing poppies, it caused a lot of questions online - mainly from Americabns (fair enough) but also a LOT of British kids who didn't have a clue what it meant, and had even managed to filter out seeing poppies on newsreaders etc on TV from their conscious perception! Education is the way forward!

Bill said...

I tend to buy several poppies every year, but don't wear them much as I rarely now (being retired so not often wearing formal attire unless going out for dinner, etc) have a jacket on with a button hole. However, I make sure I have at least one prominently on display on the dashboard of my car, more or less year-round; at present I have two on display there.

Several great-uncles were killed in WWI and various other relatives in both WWI and WWII; one of my grand-fathers was quite severely injured in WWI, but thanks to skilled surgeons in Belgium (British military and Belgian) managed to survive his rather dramatic head injuries and go on to father my mother. However I would not be here but for two quirks of fate:
1) that grand-father lost his first wife who succumbed, also during WWI whilst he was fighting and shortly after giving birth to their son, to one of the illnesses which typically killed people in those days;
2) my maternal grand-mother lost her first husband in WWI, leaving her with a son (which the deceased father had never seen when he was killed) who became my mother's much=loved half-brother; he eventually separated from his wife and lived for most of the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's until his (male) partner's death as a couple with him, when of course for the first roughly 20 years this was completely illegal; they often came to stay with us as a couple when I was a child, but I did not realise the significance of their relationship until much, much later.

In any case, WWI and WWII caused a lot of devastation within families, that's for sure, but I wouldn't exist but for WWI and for things directly attributable to WWII which would have been very unlikely to have occurred in its absence - I'm sure there are a lot like me.

Alan said...

Cecil Day Lewis put it very well in one of my favourite poems about the repetition of war -

Will it be so again
That the brave, the gifted are lost from view,
And empty, scheming men
Are left in peace their lunatic age to renew ?
Will it be so again ?